We could tell by the nervousness of the sea gulls that something was coming within the next day or so. They would not sit still. They would soar in groups and then disappear for hours at a time. Although we didn’t have a barometer, my ears could feel the pressure dropping. We were now checking the weather via telephone to the US, at $12.00 a pop, twice a day.
Today, we would take the 40 minute water ferry ride to Cancun and pick up the parts at the airport. I was torn between two crucial tasks. Should I make the trip to the airport to make sure my young crew did not get distracted by the Cancun beach front, which I knew would be teaming with equally young female vacationers? Or…should I stay with the boat and start tearing the steering apart to prepare for making the repairs and also start to prepare for the approaching storm? I was reminded of an old TV commercial where Gabe and Earl were standing in the bunk house looking out the window at the pouring rain. Gabe turned to Earl and said, “Earl, the boss wants one of us to go out and fix the fence and he wants me to go into town for supplies.” Two of the crew stayed with the boat to start to batten the hatches, while I and two other crew members took the ferry “into town.”
In addition to picking up the parts at the airport which went fairly smoothly except for the exorbitant importation taxes, we had to find a sewing kit to repair a small sail rip. It would also be a good idea to have it available in case we did get into some heavy weather and have to make additional repairs. We were all back at the boat within four hours of our departure, much to the chagrin the two crew members who had accompanied me. My hunch was correct. The moment the ferry landed in Cancun, there were hundreds of vacationers lounging on the beach. I left them there to “mingle” while I took the taxi ride to the airport alone.
By the end of the day, we had made the necessary steering repairs. In addition, we had repaired the water pump that had decided to go on the fritz, the head that had gotten clogged and the automatic bilge switch that had decided to fail.
That evening we again called the States and listened in to the weather channel. The tropical storm was increasing in intensity and was due to cross Cuba within 24 to 36 hours. Its path was predicted to follow Cuba’s southern coast line and then turn more northerly as it left Cuba and was back in open water. We pulled out our charts and began to wonder “what if?” What if it didn’t turn north and what if it continued to strengthen? It was on a track to hit us head on.
We were due to depart just about the time the storm would be making up its mind whether or not to turn into the Gulf of Mexico. Having lived through several hurricanes both on the Gulf Coast of Texas and in Florida, there was no hesitation when I announced that our departure would be indefinitely delayed. The next chore was scouting out the best place to be around the Island, should the storm decide to visit.
We spent the next morning scouting potential anchorages. We found a great little bay within the Island, unfortunately the water depth precluded us from entering the protected waters. The decision was made that where we were at the Marina was probably as good as anywhere else we could move to, so we doubled up all lines in preparation. The docks were alive others involved in the same chore. The sky was beginning to send signals that something was amiss. That afternoon, our “weather call” confirmed that the storm should be off the western coast of Cuba early in the morning of the next day. That would mean that if it didn’t turn north, we would feel the effects tomorrow afternoon. We decided to have a few margaritas and a good meal ashore since the Island very possibly could be without power the next day.
We were awakened the next morning by the rocking of the boat in 20 knot winds. The sky looked much worse today than it had yesterday. The winds were increasing as each hour passed. Mid-morning, our call for weather info confirmed the northerly turn. The storm was not yet a hurricane but winds were in 3wexcess of 60 MPH. Perhaps we were going to dodge the bullet. We did odd jobs as we waited out the residual effects. We recorded winds in excess of 40 knots before it finally decided to subside. I thought it amazing that the minute the storm was not headed our way, everyone was very anxious to leave. I assured them that we were not going anywhere for at least another 24 to 36 hours. I didn’t want to be following a monster that might turn around on me.
The storm continued its progress north and by the next afternoon was well into the northern part of the Gulf of Mexico and was forecast to make landfall somewhere in Louisiana. We started to plan our departure, topped off extra fuel tanks, took on fresh water and provisioned for the return trip. The provisions were interesting. It seems that in our brief stay the two crew members that did the provisioning had become, they thought, fluent in Spanish. Oh, well, actually canned tripe is pretty good. We left the next day on our return trip to Key West, and we all wondered what other “challenges” lay ahead as we watched Isla Mujeres disappear over the horizon.
Day one of the return was a little rough but not intolerable. The morning of day two found us in 9 to 12 foot waves left in the path of the storm. Although it was a little difficult to keep a footing, since the period of the waves was great, the ride was not intolerable. The winds continued to increase and we were forced to double reef the main and roll up the furler for a smaller foresail. We were riding the current on the way back and should be back in Key West in a total of three days.
All was well and the weather was starting to calm on our last day. We unfurled the jib and shook out the reefs in the main. Nothing left to do but raise the main back to it’s original position. I hate it when I hear that all too familiar “Capt. Matt, I think we may have a problem.” The main had jammed on the way up and was stuck about a foot from it’s fully raised position. It wouldn’t go up and it wouldn’t come down.
This particular modern sailing machine had internal halyards. That means that the only part you can see is that which comes out of a small opening at the top of the mast, and the other end that comes out a small opening near the bottom of the mast. Very clever idea which cuts down on the noise of clapping external halyards but not good for troubleshooting and fixing problems. It didn’t appear that there was a problem at the bottom of the mast, so it must be at the top. “Volunteers?” I asked, as everyone seemed to scramble to find something that had to be taken care of right away. Although the seas had calmed considerably, it was not going to be fun going up the mast in a boson’s chair in 4 to 6’s.
Jonathan was now, by far, the lightest one onboard. Especially after hugging the rail for quite some time after I told him what tripe really was. “It makes sense for him to be the one, right?” asked the other three students almost in unison. After a brief explanation of physics and how what throws up must come down, one of the other students volunteered.
We prepared the boson’s chair, making sure to put an extra line on just in case the halyard parted. “Let’s see, you’ll probably need a screw driver to take off the weather plate in order to see the pulleys inside the mast” I said. “Don’t know if you will need a regular or phillips so you should take both. Better take a pair of pliers as well, just in case.” Everything in order, we slowly used the winch on the mast to raise the student to the top to hopefully find and repair the problem. I was not a happy camper when the student announced that the weather plate was not put on with screws but pop rivets. Since we had neither a battery powered drill or a 50 mile extension cord, we decided to live with the problem for a while. We might have been able to use a chisel to knock off the rivet tops, but I felt it would be too dangerous under the current conditions. It wasn’t pretty, but we were still sailing.
We picked up the light at the entrance to Key West around 2100. The end was near. “What are we going to do about the main?” one of the students asked. “Who has never been up in a boson’s chair?” I inquired. Three of the four crew’s hands timidly were raised. Jonathan was once again ruled out so we flipped a coin to see who got to make the final assent with the knife to cut the halyard. (The halyard was jammed too tight to be able to release the shackle.)
We prepared to work as a team to get control of the main once the halyard was severed. One student steered, one was at the top of the mast with the knife, one was tending the winch which kept the student at the top, and I and the final crew member anxiously awaited the drop of the main. We rounded the entrance light and I sounded the command to cut the halyard. The main immediately fell slack and started its downward decent, simultaneously we all shook and jumped in horror as we heard and witnessed “bombs bursting in air,” whistles, rockets and a sky filled with fire. Our celebrated return had just begun. After recovering from the shock, we finally tied up at the dock and made the final log entry at 2330, July 4th.